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From Handstands to Faceplants: Ten Years of Tony Hawk

G4Sterling
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Posted November 18, 2009 - By G4Sterling


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From Handstands to Faceplants: Ten Years of Tony Hawk

I still remember the Sunday afternoon in October 1999 when I caught a subway to a Blockbuster Video to rent Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater based on a neighbor’s recommendation. Little did I realize that it would spark a love affair that would start before the Birdman Bandwagon fired up and would last well beyond the point at which “Downhill Jam” wasn’t just a spin-off, it was a pithy descriptor of the series.

1999: Tony Hawk, Professional Skateboarder

Tony Hawk's Pro SkaterDuring those afternoons playing THPS ten years back at a Midtown Atlanta college dorm room, bonds were formed from the unlikeliest of demographics. From my slightly militant dread-headed DJ roommate to the shy and quiet music major to our new (still-closeted) roommate who’d just transferred to our school from South Carolina and was slightly uneasy around the rest of us, everyone united in busting out 180 kickflips and Judo Madonnas until the wee hours. For a bunch of guys who were as far removed from skate culture as you could get (and from different backgrounds), we were all united in our dormitory-wide attempt to nail the Birdman’s 900.

And that was the real appeal of Neversoft’s game: no matter who you were, or how ignorant you were toward skating and skate culture, a generation of gamers who’d been taught to memorize combos thanks to a decade of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat could apply that same muscle memory to snapping out insane board combos. Also, it got a lot of hip-hop heads into the likes of Dead Kennedys and Goldfinger. To this day, I can still remember the words to “Superman” because of hours sunk into THPS.

A year later, I found out just how much Neversoft really had up its sleeve.



2000: It’s You, On a Skateboard!

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2In the fall of 2000, I had two choices to make: a vote on who would lead America and whether I’d pick Bob Burnquist or create myself as a skater. I went with me. I’m not revealing who I voted for that year.

The Create-a-Skater was a huge deal at the time; previously, only the Acclaim WWF titles had such a high level of detail in a sports game. Though it was in its infancy, THPS2’s customization options blazed the trail for the sort of obsessive tweaking that would exhaust me years before user-generated content became an industry buzzword. Neversoft also introduced an exceptionally important element to the series, the manual.

Birdman fans don’t have to tell you how important the manual is to the Tony Hawk Experience. It is the glue that has linked together millions of high-scoring combos in its nine years of existence.

2001: Passing the Torch

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3If there was a game that indicated a passing of hardware generations, it was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. Gaming trivia nuts might know that it was not only the first online PS2 game (if you jerry-rigged your PS2; the Network Adapter wouldn’t launch until nearly a year later), but the last Nintendo 64 game released in North America. THPS3 represented so many things at the time it released. By 2001, the series had reached critical darling status, and gamers who’d discovered the series a year prior were fully engaged in the third game. It launched during a holiday season jam-packed with now-classic games. And after you remove the hype surrounding it, THPS3 introduced the revert, which allowed players to string up progressively more insane combos. It was equally invaluable as the manual.

2002: Working Off the Clock

While THPS3 marked a transition period, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 showed off a more mature game. As much time as I’d sunk into the other Tony Hawk games, none resonated with me nearly as much as THPS4. Although manuals and reverts introduced a great deal of combo-centric play to a series that had progressively blossomed into an experience with more in common with tap-crazy fighting games than sports, nothing could compare to the freedom and liberation that came from losing time limits. With THPS4, I could freely explore the world at my leisure and unlock stages based on my whimsy instead of the “what am I gonna do in 3 minutes this time?” format of prior games. By removing time limits, Neversoft opened up exploration. Each series iteration aimed to render its predecessor unplayable. None of the prior games did so with the aplomb of THPS4. I simply couldn’t go back to a world that forced time limits on my experience.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4

2003: RIP, Pro Skater

After removing time limits and encouraging stage exploration, Neversoft wanted to try something different: a plot. And alongside the gameplay gimmicks, the story-driven gameplay of Tony Hawk’s Underground set the stage for every game that followed. Sure, getting off your board was supposed to be the gameplay hook, but the fact that you could use an EyeToy to slap your mug on a skater and bring him through the ranks from Jersey bum to superstar was the real hook that grabbed fans.

2004: “Hi I’m Tony Hawk, and This Is ‘Jumping the Shark’”

Tony Hawk's Underground 2In 2004, the Tony Hawk brand was indisputably a cornerstone of Activision’s lineup. Unfortunately, Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 was a misstep. By the time the likes of Bam Margera and Steve-O showed up to the party, it was indicative of both the state of “Jackass” and the games: Both had worn out their welcome. It included some great additions like the sticker slap, which let you maintain an air combo without kissing wall, but I’ll always remember the stupid subplot with the ten year-old in a wheelchair and Ben Franklin trying to skate. And that’s not a good memory to have.

2005: A Crucial Tipping Point

The following year proved to be a Hawk-splosion. A decently functional port of T.H.U.G. 2 made its way to PSP in Spring 2005, and Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland was a culmination of the entire console generation’s advancements, from highly evolved gameplay to the series’ long-awaited Xbox Live debut (not to mention streaming tech that would let you theoretically skate all the way from East LA to Santa Monica), but by that point, the damage had been done for many. I liked T.H.A.W. more than many, but it wasn’t the best Tony Hawk game of 2005.

Tony Hawk's American Sk8landThe big battle of 2005 was on the portable front, and although Shaba Games’ port of T.H.U.G. 2 captured the look and the feel of the PS2 game, Vicarious Visions’ DS game, Tony Hawk’s American Sk8land, nailed the essence of the series and adapted it to Nintendo’s less powerful handheld.

To this day, not only is Sk8land among my favorite DS games of all time, it's part of arguably the greatest holiday season seen on the DS, much like THPS3 was part of a huge 2001 holiday. It proved yet again that a solid gameplay base will always trump good looks.

2006: Combo Bail

Despite Vicarious Visions’ stellar effort and Neversoft’s solid culmination of four years of PS2 tech, the series just completely lost its footing in the transition to HD consoles. It wouldn’t be tough to come up with a laundry list of problems with Tony Hawk’s Project 8, but the worst offender was the "Nail the Trick" feature, which consisted zooming the camera in on your skater’s feet and furiously shifting the analog sticks to pull off the series’ trademark multi-tiered combos without shattering your ankles. The fact that HD-era Tony Hawk looked leathery and zombie-like felt awfully indicative of a game series that had become undead. And as a PS3 launch title, it didn’t even have online.

I don’t think it’s an accident that with the rise of the casual audience, the publisher’s focus has shifted away from aging hardcore fans toward a younger, less critical audience. Alongside Project 8, Activision launched Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam, a more casual-friendly offering that played down punk irreverence in favor of SSX-style good clean fun. But the publisher was still willing to give the traditional experience one more college try.

2007: I Hope You Have Health Insurance

Tony Hawk's Proving GroundAnd all you need to know about Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground are three things: The DS version was a fantastic sequel to Sk8land that touted fluid 60 frame per second animation, Neversoft’s biggest Tony Hawk masterminds had already taken over Guitar Hero from Harmonix, and Skate came out that year. It tanked quickly among a sea of brilliant titles during one of the best holiday seasons of the decade.

When I finished delivering my verdict on Proving Ground, I optimistically hoped that Neversoft would take a year off, re-evaluate what happened, and determine where the franchise started its decline and remedy the downward trajectory.  Two years later, I find myself wondering what would’ve happened if Harmonix had joined Red Octane and continued to work on Guitar Hero. Would we have more sluggish Tony Hawk games from Neversoft, or would they have figured out the flaws?

(Regardless, Guitar Hero 5 is pretty good.)

2009: Don’t Call It a Comeback

Tony Hawk: Ride hits stores this week. I don’t have a plastic board in front of me yet to make a decision on the game, but between early Twitter buzz and this week’s Penny Arcade strip, it’s hard not to be cautious. It’s a new developer (Robomodo, a grouping of former EA Chicago devs) and a big plastic peripheral.

But whether Ride is a hit or a dud, I can quickly assess that it’s not for me. My initial spin during PAX was rather fun, but not $120 worth of fun, and frankly, I’m just not sold on the idea of buying more hardware to interface with this experience. Why would I put another plastic peripheral in my house to play a skating game when I have a Wii Balance Board and the passable Skate It? Someone described the game as “a Bobby Kotick idea,” and given the Activision CEO’s jarring honesty regarding franchising, it’s an apt label.

Tony Hawk Ride Skateboard

I wish I could finish the discussion on a more upbeat note. A decade ago, I would’ve never expected to love skateboarding on a comparable level of ardor similar to Resident Evil or Metal Gear Solid. It became a part of my gaming life for the better part of this decade. And yet, unlike troubled cash cows like Tomb Raider who saw some recovery in the past few years, I’m not so sure if Tony Hawk can ever regain a fraction of its prior glory. As I think back on this long period of my life invested in the series, it’s an awfully bittersweet thought.

When did you fall out of love with the series?

From Handstands to Faceplants: Ten Years of Tony Hawk
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